Chapter 1


--Before NPS

--The Park Service Assumes Responsibility

--Interpretation Institutionalized

Chapter 2

--Branching Into History

--The Importance of Historical Interpretation

--Inagurating the Program

--Historical Challenges

Chapter 3

--New Directions

--Audiovisual Innovations

--Museums, Visitor Centers, and the New Look

--Living History

--Environmental Interpretation

--Women in Interpretation

--Other Agendas

Chapter 4

--Interpreting Interpretation

Chapter 5

--Interpretation In Crisis






--Branching Into History

--New Directions

--Interpreting Interpretation

--Interpretation in Crisis



by Barry Mackintosh

Environmental Interpretation

Among the postwar trends in natural interpretation was a gradual shift from a "cataloging" approach, stressing names of and facts about a park's natural features, to an ecological approach emphasizing their interrelationships. According to Bill Dunmire, "progressive park naturalists in the 50 's would have been perfectly comfortable with the word 'ecology' and its implications, long before it became fashionable with the general public."[46] Observers of ecological relationships were especially sensitive to the ways in which man's actions often degraded the environment, a mounting concern during the 1960s. Many in the service who shared this concern felt that the bureau could do more to stimulate public awareness of environmental problems and action to combat them.

Writing in the NPS Interpreters' Newsletter in December 1967, Bill Everhart, assistant director for interpretation, declared that interpreting park resources to park visitors was not enough:

First, our interpretive programs have traditionally been limited to the parks themselves. We have concentrated mostly on telling the park story to visitors in the parks ....
Secondly, we have had a tendency to interpret a park in terms of its resources. We have not effectively carried out an educational campaign to further the general cause of conservation .... Only through an environmental approach to interpretation can an organization like ours, which has both Yosemite and the Statue of Liberty, achieve its purpose of making the park visitor's experience fully significant.[47]

Beginning in 1968, the Service worked with Mario Menesini, director of the Educational Consulting Service, on National Environmental Education Development (NEED) materials for schools. NEED was intended to develop environmental awareness and values through the application of five "strands": (1) variety and similarities, (2) patterns, (3) interrelation and interdependence, (4) continuity and change, (5) adaptation and evolution. These strands were supposed to be woven into all subjects taught in the schools--and all park interpretive programs. Parks were encouraged to establish Environmental Study Areas (ESAs), to be visited by school classes using the NEED materials. Sixty-three parks, ranging from Appomattox Court House and Natchez Trace Parkway to Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Grand Teton, had ESAs by 1970, and 25 more were then planned.

Raymond L. Nelson, supervisor of the Mather Training Center from 1967 to 1970, was a strong proponent of environmental interpretation. Under his inspirational leadership, the courses in oral, written, and audiovisual communications presented to Service interpreters were geared to the NEED strands. All papers and talks prepared by the attendees on their parks were to incorporate environmental themes. For natural park interpreters, this approach came naturally. Those charged with interpreting battlefields, birthplaces, and other historic sites found it more challenging.

Among the dissenters was James W. Sheire, a Service historian with the Eastern Service Center in Washington. In a 1970 letter to the NPS Interpreters' Newsletter he vented the frustration shared by many in his profession:

I would most respectfully ask our environmental enthusiasts to please, please leave the historical areas alone. There is nothing ecological about most of them. They were established to commemorate a significant person, event, or period in American history. They should be interpreted according to the discipline of history, not ecology. Unfortunately, the quality of our historical interpretation at these areas has reached an almost shameful level .... If only a portion of that energy and enthusiasm displayed by our environmental interpreters was directed to interpreting, e.g., Carl Sandburg's life and art or Thomas Edison's position in the history of American technology, we would have a top flight interpretive program at such areas. We do not. Instead, it is my fear that we will now have Haiku at Colonial, "web of life" at Herbert Hoover, and child sensitivity training at Ft. Laramie.[48]

But the movement was then at its flood, the first Earth Day coming in 1970. Capitalizing on the national sentiment and publicity, Q. Boyd Evison, chief of the new Division of Environmental Projects at Harpers Ferry Center, established an Environmental Education Task Force "to expedite the establishment of an environmental education program that is integral to operations at all levels of the National Park Service--a program which will also assist public and private organizations concerned with the promotion of a national environmental ethic."[49]

In 1972 another new unit in the Washington headquarters, the Office of Environmental Interpretation under Vernon C. (Tommy) Gilbert, Jr., negotiated a cooperative park studies unit agreement with George Williams College, near Chicago. Its objectives were "the administration of a program designed to study effective environmental education, interpretation, and sociological aspects of park programs in cooperation with the College and participation in a related program of undergraduate and graduate studies." This affiliation resulted from Director Hartzog's desire to bring the Service's environmental education programs to urban areas and initiatives by Nelson Wieters and Steven Van Matre, George Williams faculty involved with the movement. [50]

Steven H. Lewis, who had instructed Service interpreters at Mather Training Center, moved to the campus in October and inaugurated a two-level training program there for Service employees. Seven interpretive supervisors at the GS-9 level began a year of study leading to a master's degree in environmental education administration. Some 35 urban intake trainees, just hired or with brief park experience, came for a month at George Williams before proceeding or returning to their parks. The students spent some time at the college's field campus in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and a week working in inner-city Chicago schools.

During two academic years, the program graduated 14 students with master's degrees and schooled 104 intake trainees. But Ronald H. Walker, Hartzog's successor in 1973, did not share Hartzog's enthusiasm for environmental education and judged the program lacking in cost-effectiveness. It was not renewed after Lewis left for another assignment in March 1974. The program had been valuable in exposing Service employees to an urban situation. But it did not succeed in strengthening environmental education or reorienting careers, as hoped--few were motivated to seek out urban assignments. Nor was there any long-term follow-up to see that the graduates were used effectively in the field for which they had been trained. [51]

In 1975 the NEED program was rounded out with the publication of curriculum materials for kindergarten through second grade and fifth grade, funded by the National Park Foundation. Eighty parks then had one or more ESAs, used by some 180,600 students from 202 school systems throughout the country. By this time environmental interpretation for other visitors had matured to a less self-conscious function. Bill Dunmire, chief of interpretation, saw its greatest contribution as "the injection of a new methodology--that of involving visitors in our interpretive events, not as mere spectators but as participants." He cited a "slough slog" at Everglades National Park and an ecology float trip at Yosemite as examples of successful "immersion programs" contributing to environmental awareness. "The new breed of interpreters are finding that the more visitors will participate by using all their senses, by making their own discoveries and by getting into the thick of any given environment, the more they will carry away from the experience," he wrote. [52

As late as 1979 Assistant Secretary of the Interior Robert L. Herbst declared environmental education "an essential management function for every park. . ." But a back-to-basics movement, inspired by financial retrenchment and a belief that the Service was lagging in more traditional responsibilities, would soon affect this and other special programs. In March 1982 Director Russell E. Dickenson endorsed and circulated a paper by Bill Dunmire's successor, Vernon D. (Dave) Dame, that frowned on programs not directly based on park resources or extending too far beyond them. "These can be exciting programs, but our job is to interpret the resources and themes of our parks, not to function as subject matter educators or as spokespeople for special causes," Dame wrote. [53] Fifteen years before, Bill Everhart had complained that the Service was mostly interpreting park resources to park visitors. No longer was this deemed inadequate.

Environmental interpretation at historical areas was also reassessed. Looking back in 1985, Dame--a naturalist by background--judged "ridiculous" the imposition of NEED strands on parks like Independence.[54] Few historians would disagree.



Last Modified: July 9, 2000 09:35:00 pm PST

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